The Lion Within (Ghost Cat Shifters #1)

BOOK: The Lion Within (Ghost Cat Shifters #1)
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Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Once upon a time...

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Epilogue

Excerpt: Lion Lost & Found

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Acknowledgments

About the author

The Lion Within

Ghost Cat Shifters, Book 1

By J. H. Croix

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 J.H. Croix

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1532808100

ISBN 13: 9781532808104
 

This book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in whole or in part by any means, including graphic, electronic, or mechanical without the express written consent of the publisher with the exception of brief quotations included in critical articles and reviews.

Dedication

To all the readers out there who enjoy taking a step beyond our world! Who’s to say what creatures walk among us?

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Centuries ago in the northern Appalachian Mountains, mountain lions fled deeper and deeper into the mountains, seeking safety from the rapid encroachment of humanity into their vast territory. Mountain lions developed the power to shift from human to mountain lion and back again, saving their species as they hid in plain sight. The majestic wild cats became creatures of myth in the East while they flourished out West. Everywhere they were known as ghost cats because they were rarely encountered in the wild and moved with prowess and stealth. The wild cats expanded their range as their shifter ancestors intermingled with them, deepening the circle of protection for the species with layer upon layer of secrecy. The infamous ghost cats had powers of stealth beyond what most people imagined. Yet, their safety relied on a contract that couldn’t be broken among shifters—they must protect the secret of their existence. In recent years, this contract had weakened due to the greed and misplaced pride of a few shifters. The unprecedented success of shifters at hiding in plain sight over centuries had emboldened some who thought secrecy was no longer necessary.

Chapter 1

“Watch out!”

Sophia Ashworth glanced up at the sound of her friend’s voice to see a potted tulip tottering on the deck railing just above her head. She had been looking down at the slate walkway that wound around the deck at her friend Vivian’s house. Her eyes followed the bright red tulip as it lurched from side to side before it toppled off the railing. With a squeal, she dashed out of the way. She managed to avoid getting conked on the head, but her shoulder was covered in potting soil when she looked up again. The plant pot sat cracked on the ground. She glanced up at Vivian to find her covering her mouth in a weak attempt to keep from laughing aloud.

Sophia rolled her eyes and brushed the soil off her shoulder before sifting her fingers through her hair. The tulip hung from the back of her hair. Carefully untangling it, she noticed its bulb had survived the fall. She held it aloft as she walked up the stairs to the deck.

“After all that, you’d better replant this poor flower.” She handed the bedraggled tulip to Vivi and glanced around. “How the hell did that happen?”

Vivi had given up from holding back her laugh and simply pointed over at her cat, a black and white cat who was just barely past being a kitten.

Sophia strode over to the cat and swept him in her arms. “Jax, you are trouble!” She nuzzled her nose in his neck. His return purr was enough to vibrate through her entire body. Holding Jax in her arms, Sophia plopped down in a chair beside the small wooden table on her friend’s deck.

Vivian Sheldon, Vivi to her friends and family, was Sophia’s best friend. Lately, Sophia needed lots of Vivi time. Her brother Heath had been arrested two months ago when he was caught at a local drug dealer’s house in the middle of buying heroin. At thirty-one, Heath was three years older than Sophia and had been her beloved older brother her entire life. After a car accident a year ago, he’d gotten hooked on painkillers. She thought he was finally kicking the habit only to discover he was so desperate for a fix, he’d tangled with the shifter smuggling network that had taken hold in Painter, Colorado. The only upside to the whole mess was he was now in treatment. Since his arrest was his first offense, he’d been given the chance to do treatment and community service. As long as he stayed clean for a year, all charges would be dropped at the end of the year.

Sophia stroked Jax’s fur and glanced at Vivi. “How’s it going?”

Vivi was already busy replanting the tulip into another flowerpot. Her long black hair was pulled into a ponytail that swished from side to side when she glanced over her shoulder. “Same, same. Busy with work and arguing with Julianna’s new first grade teacher. I’m telling you, before you have kids, you’d better think long and hard. If it were just me and worrying about what I did, it wouldn’t be so bad. Try facing down the school if you’re worried about something. Mrs. Dunn is a bitch,” she said flatly.

Sophia nodded and commiserated with Vivi. As a single mother to Julianna, Vivi had plenty on her plate. Sophia was relieved to focus on something other than everything that had been weighting her down lately. Between Heath’s car accident, his difficult recovery, and the most recent mess, she felt like she’d dominated just about every conversation she had with Vivi. She was trying to let go of what she couldn’t control. Being a sounding board for Vivi’s frustrations with Julianna’s new teacher was a nice change. As she stood to leave a while later, Vivi caught her eyes. “Any news?”

Sophia’s heart clenched as she shook her head. “Nope.” With Heath away, she kept hoping for something to shine a ray of hope. She also kept hoping for something to give in the wall of silence around the police investigation into the shifter smuggling network. Before Heath had brushed up against it, she and just about every shifter who wasn’t involved had been concerned about the network’s existence. It was rattling nerves and raising fears of exposure for shifters in the absolute worst light. With centuries of secrecy protecting shifters, some shifters had forgotten how important it was. While she’d certainly been concerned about the network before, she was fired up and furious since Heath had tangled with it. She knew perfectly well he was responsible for his own actions, but the easy access to drugs had offered a path for Heath to stumble along. Heartsick over witnessing her once proud and strong brother fall so low after his car accident, she was bound and determined to make sure they exposed the shifters involved once and for all.

Vivi stepped to her side and tugged her into a swift hug. Sophia gave a small wave once she stepped off the bottom step and walked down Vivi’s short driveway to the road. She lived only a few minutes away and walked by almost every day on her way to work.

Moments later, she walked down Main Street in Painter, Colorado, a picturesque little town high in the Rocky Mountains, tucked in a small valley. She pushed through the door into Mile High Grounds, the small coffee shop she owned. When she’d decided to start this little café a few years ago, she hoped it would succeed, but it had done far better than she hoped. She glanced around to see most of the tables full and a line that wound almost to the door. She couldn’t help the tiny hum of pride. She lifted the counter opening and stepped behind it, grabbing an apron and tying it around her waist quickly.

“Hey Josie,” Sophia said when she stepped to Josie’s side by the espresso maker.

Josie was one of her two main employees. Sophia had a few others that filled in, but Josie and Tommy were her regulars. Josie moved lightning fast as she served one espresso and immediately prepped for the next. “Hey Boss. It’s been crazy all morning.”
 

“Looks like. Want me to take over this part for a bit here?”

Josie shook her head. “Nah. I’m good. Tommy could probably use a hand at the register,” she offered with a nod toward the counter.

Without a word, Sophia stepped to his side and turned on the other register. The line started moving more quickly, and Tommy stepped back to help Josie crank out coffees and serve bakery items. Sophia was on autopilot, taking orders, ringing them up in the computer and processing payment. She bantered with customers and savored the busyness to keep her mind off of her brother and the constant worry her parents were carrying.

She glanced up at the next customer and her breath went out in a whoosh. The man standing at the counter instantly taught her the meaning of the phrase “took my breath away.” A flush raced through her and her pulse quickened. The man was tall, dark and mouth-wateringly handsome. He had black hair on the longish side with dark curls edging the collar of his t-shirt. His navy blue eyes were bright against the contrast of his dark hair. His features were strong—sculpted cheekbones, a blade of a nose, and full sensual lips. His t-shirt was gloriously stretched tight across his muscles. She could actually count his six-pack of rock-hard abs.

She must have been silent a beat too long because the man arched a brow.

“Uh, what can I get for you?” she blurted out.

Wow. Pull it together. You sound like an idiot.

Sophia shook her head, trying to knock her obnoxious critic into silence. Oh-so-sexy man’s mouth hooked on one side, his eyes glinting.

“Did I miss something?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“You shook your head.”

She felt the heat race up her neck and face.
Maybe you should pay better attention to me sometimes. Shut up.
She sighed internally. She was having an entire conversation in her head while the sexiest man she’d ever laid eyes on stood there watching her and thinking she must be half crazy.

She met his eyes and forced smiled. “Oh, nothing. Coffee?”

His smile stretched from one corner of his mouth to the other. “That’s what I came to find. What do you recommend?”

“It depends on what you like. Straight coffee? Or something more?”

“Something dark.”

Dear God. The man had only said a few words and her heart was already racing, heat flooding her body.

“How about a double-shot Americano?”

“Perfect.”

Sophia rang him up, while Josie got started on his coffee. Sophie couldn’t help the curiosity. “Are you from around here?”

Oh-so-sexy shrugged. “Yes and no.”

“What does that mean?”

“I was born here, but my family moved away when I was only three years old. I don’t remember anything, but I always wanted to come back.”

Her curiosity notched higher. Painter was a fairly small town. Born and raised here, Sophia knew almost everyone in town. If she didn’t personally know them, she probably knew of them.

“Well, welcome back. I’m Sophia. There’s a chance I might know your family. I’ve been here my whole life.”

“Nice to meet you, Sophia. I’m Daniel, Daniel Hayes. My parents were David and Sarah Hayes.” A blink of pain went through his eyes. “They both passed away in the last two years.”

“Oh…I’m sorry.” Her reply was automatic, but she meant it. She was close to her family, so the idea of somebody losing theirs was painful.

Daniel nodded. “Thanks. It’s life.” He paused and took a breath. Josie passed over his coffee. Sophie took it from her and slid it across the counter to him.

He took a swallow of coffee and closed his eyes with a sigh. “Wow. Damn good coffee.” When his blue eyes landed on her again, her belly fluttered. Her body appeared to have a mind of its own when it came to this man.

She couldn’t say why, but his parents’ names were vaguely familiar. She didn’t want to pry, so she left it alone.

“How long are you visiting?” she asked, trying to keep focused.

“I’m moving here for the summer actually.”

“Oh. You just decided to move here?”

His navy eyes held hers steadily. “Yeah, pretty much. My mother always talked about Painter and how much she missed it. After she died, I decided I wanted to come find out what she loved about this place.”

Sophia nodded slowly. “Well, summer’s a wonderful time to be here.”

“That’s what I heard.” He started to say something else when another customer stepped to the counter. He lifted his coffee. “I’ll get out of your hair, but I’ll be back. I’ll be needing more of this amazing coffee.”

BOOK: The Lion Within (Ghost Cat Shifters #1)
9.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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